Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

Here's an interesting question. Should all advertising you see be identified as advertising? If your initial reaction is yes, then you'll want to head over to NextGen and read this article. Too lazy to click? Yeah, I know that feeling. Here, I'll sum it up for you: The FTC is going to start evaluating viral ad campaigns to see if "the relationship between the endorser and the seller isn't disclosed". What does this mean in real life? Well, that means that if you pay someone to go onto a message board and post about how great your product is, that's a no go. That's cool, I hate those secret astroturfing campaigns anyways.

However, here's where it gets sticky for me: What about viral campaigns that take the form of alternate reality games? Remember I love bees? Or Giantology? Are these viral campaigns deceptive because the advertiser isn't immediately disclosed? Will this inevitably extend to product placements in TV or movies or the stuff a celebrity wears? Should we slap a warning label on every piece of advertising to make sure we identify it as such? Will I stop asking questions and actually say something? Yes.

When I was working on BOTS, we had to identify all of our advertising with a nice 10 point font disclaimer on all ad boxes that said, "Advertisement". This was because we had players under the age of 13 and those poor kids can't tell the difference between an ad and a non-ad. Which I guess makes sense. For example, as I kid, I never knew what paid for TV. The commercials were just more content to me, mini shows, if you will.

But hey, last I checked, most advertising is geared towards adults or near adults. You know... the people in the world with money. We are constantly bombarded with advertising and almost everything you see with a brand in it (TV, billboard, message board or your local park trash can) was more than likely meticulously planned by some account executive somewhere. There's no accidents in advertising. Cynical adults know this and all adults should at least implicitly understand this.

But let's go back to viral campaigns. They are a different beast altogether. What if instead of monetary compensation, endorsers are given something else, something like social capital? The ability to pass along something cool before anyone else or to tout an upcoming product before it's "cool" has value in itself. If an advertiser gathers a group of influencers, do the influencers have to disclose that they were selected to be the seeders? What I'm getting at is that you really can't get into someone's head and find out if their motivation for shilling something is "pure".

C'mon people, let's buck up and realize that the world can not be padded at every turn. Buyer beware. Advertisee beware.

"Life is pain Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."


Anonymous said...

I was fine with the blurring between traditional advertising and...whatever is beyond the blurry line. I don't mind the occasional excursion across the gray line that we have come to know as viral or guerrilla marketing. "The big damn movie" Serenity, for example, would never have been made if it weren't for guerrilla marketing through the fans.

So if advertisers had been content to acknowledge the gray line, and treat it as a neutral zone to be violated only occasionally, I'd be happy with that. Unfortunately, marketers continue to push the boundaries, and we simply cannot count on their (your :)) industry to govern themselves. It's why the FDA had to step in to control what manufacturers could say about the health effects of their products. (And yet we still see adverts for diet pills whose most active weight loss ingredient is caffeine.)

I don't mind when I'm occasionally subjected to marketing without my knowledge, when it's done in a subtle, clever way, and not cynically or dishonestly. Unfortunately, the trend is towards more dishonesty. I hate government intrusion as much as the next person, but I'm starting to think it's a good idea in this case.

Ken said...

You're of course completely correct that my industry has no ability to govern itself. We are evil you know. That's why I totally agree with you about the diet pills, false claims need to be policed. (Just go with heroin, the holiday pounds just fly off).

The problem I have with the FTC investigating viral campaigns is that it's just too hazy and difficult to wrap our arms around. Can building points on your refer a friend program count if you don't tell your friend what you're getting?

I didn't want to use this word in the post but this is like censorship wherein most of the responsibility should be in the consumer to be aware of what they're consuming. If I watch MTV, chances are, I'm going to see gyrating hips. If that offends me, I shouldn't watch MTV. If I visit a site named "all I want for xmas is a psp", chances are, I'm going to be marketed to. If I don't want that, I shouldn't visit. Sure, some things are more vague but like I said in the post, most things you see about brands are no accidents. Maybe I'm being too harsh but we really shouldn't have the government be our backup common sense.